Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory and Injury (2013)

Teethed Glory and InjuryI’m always on the look out for new music. Really, it’s an addiction. But one that’s become very easy to feed in this interconnected, digital age.

There’s a few Facebook pages I follow, a few podcasts I check out, I always listen in to Nick Bollinger’s album reviews on National Radio. A few blogs and the like; I often find myself liking what Simon Sweetman likes on Off The Tracks (while usually seeking a second opinion on stuff he doesn’t like).

I also keep an eye on what “The Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd”, Anthony Fantano, does on The Needle Drop, both the blog and his never ending stream of articulate, amusing, well-considered videos on his YouTube channel.

Though Fantano talks about a broad range of music, it seems clear that he gets most excited and passionate about heavy and aggressive music, things more towards the extreme and experimental in particular. And when he’s at his most excited and passionate is where he’s most likely to persuade me to check an album out, and as a result there’s been a number of bands of various stripes of metal, hardcore and extreme hip-hop that I’ve heard first through Fantano’s recommendations; artists who I may not have otherwise heard of at all.

One of these artists was Irish experimental black metal outfit Altar of Plagues. I’m no great connoisseur of all things black metal; indeed I own very little within the scope of that genre. But, nonetheless, some way in which Fantano described the power, noise, and experimentation of Altar of Plagues’ Teethed Glory and Injury sent me off to YouTube to listen to a few tracks. And, shortly afterwards, the album was downloading from YouTube.

Teethed Glory and Injury is a massive bleeding hulk of a record; drenched in harsh, rhythmic electronics, buffeted and bracketed between the blast beats, harsh treble-y guitars and screamed vocals of its black metal core. Deep, throbbing electronic sounds loom without; bass notes plunging so low, putting your sub-woofers at risk.

There are frequent diversions into looming, spacious electronic drenched interludes; bass and drums simplifying, thrumming, while the guitar moans as electronic noises buzz and hum. Then the guitar returns, and James Kelly’s fearsome, terrifying scream returns. His vocals are usually incoherent, white noise and pain providing an unease to the relentlessly rhythmic music, but when snatches of words can be heard the unease only increases – not least on ‘Burnt Year’, where the narrator seems to be screaming of watching their children die.

That the album kicks off with ‘Mills’, a troubling electronic pulse humming, throbbing towards the explosion of guitar that opens the second guitar, ‘God Alone’ is a good indicator of what is to follow. This is an album where electronic experimentation feeds off unusual, angular guitar, often with guitar clicks and hums forming the basis for a rhythmic loop. Huge, rumbling electronic notes appear throughout this album, holding down the sound while the drummer rolls across the floor toms, rooting the listener to the spot while the higher notes of the guitar and shrieked vocals claw at the listener.

And, then, in moments of almost relief, the drums and electronics fall into a dense, hypnotic rhythm, while layered, chanted vocals and hypnotic picked guitar riffs cause the mind to wander and relax. Such as on ‘Scald, Scar and Water’ where rumbling, grounded drumming and barely heard vocal harmonies fade into glitchy electronic buzzes and loops; dark and almost danceable electronica.

Think GodSpeed You! Black Emperor meeting Sunn 0))) in a dark club where The Haxan Cloak is playing a set.  If either of those names mean anything to you, then there’ll be something you’ll find to like in Teethed Glory and Injury. Probably.

I mentioned Altar of Plagues and James Kelly only last week, when writing about What’s Between, the debut album of WIFE – the stage name of Kelly’s post-Altar solo project. With Teethed Glory and Injury it’s both clear the musical direction that Kelly wanted to explore next, but also clear why he decided shortly after the album’s release that he’d taken the project as far he could, and disbanded Altar of Plagues.

Because Teethed Glory and Injury is full of the looming, dark electronics, the subterranean terror that would be more associated with electronic artists such as The Haxan Cloak and Tim Hecker, more than even the most experimental black metal artist. The sound is more interested in exploring the interplay between throbbing electronics and unusual guitar angles, in getting the listener to sway and enter a trance than forcing them into a fight-or-flight reaction due to the power of shrill guitar and drums.

And vocally, despite Kelly’s vocals being often terrifyingly and effectively harsh and shrill, the moments where he layers his voice with the electronics and rhythms to create ominous-yet-soothing monk-like chants are amongst the album’s most effective.

Taken together, listened to in each other’s context, the final album by Altar of Plagues and the debut of WIFE are indeed a pair, if a disparate pair. They both fit within the same idea, the same sense of experimentation with dark, deep, electronics; sounds that can comfort as much as terrify, send the listener into a trance as much as force their body to move with either sensuality or fear.

One presents itself as a black metal album, full of guitar, screamed vocal and anger. The other as a dark pop album, with smooth electronics and sweet, sensual vocals. But both are underlying their superficial with an exploration of what can be done with loops, with rhythms, with near-sub sonic textures layered with unconventional melodies.

Both albums are also marked by superb production; the clear production on Teethed Glory and Injury allowing each harsh guitar note and thumped tom drum to be heard amongst the buzzes and glitches of the underlying electronics.

Perhaps the best meld of what Altar of Plagues did with their last album and what Kelly went on to do with WIFE is in Teethed Glory and Injury’s centrepiece, ‘A Remedy and a Fever’. Over this track’s eight minutes, throbbing, sensual, hypnotic electronics play off and underneath the harsh guitar and shrill vocals.

Both elements are given enough space to exist almost independently, but in the end it’s the electronic elements that win out, creating a song that pulls the listener from looming hypnotic loops to blast beats and screams and back again, but ending with a gentle, hum, leading us on to where the album wants to take us next.

Beer match: Dark. Dark and complex, with maybe a harsh edge lurking around. Sit down with a Black IPA to wash down this black-metal-electronic hybrid album.  Epic’s ‘Apocalypse‘, for example.  Pummelling, shrill hoppiness, dark, solid bottom.  That’d do nicely.

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